When Shannon LaNier was in the second grade, he informed his classmates one of his great grandfathers was President Thomas Jefferson. The class, seeing his darker skin color, laughed at him and his teacher proclaimed him a liar. LaNier’s mother visited school the next day to defend her son and tell his teacher that yes, indeed, the family had proof their lineage traced to Jefferson and the woman he enslaved, Sally Hemings.
LaNier recounted this and other stories during the Critical Conversations Series lecture held Tuesday, February 8, at Eastern Kentucky University. This lecture series is part of a set of events held on campus to commemorate Black History Month. LaNier is anchor at BNC News and author of the book, Jefferson’s Children: The Story of One American Family.
“It was important to bring Mr. LaNier to EKU because he has an overwhelmingly unique familial background that deserves to be shared broadly to all people, especially Americans,” said Dr. Bruce Mitchell, Black History Month committee chair and organizer. “The interconnectedness of Mr. LaNier’s ancestry within and between the Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings families contains rich information that captures the pervasiveness of familial physical abuse, sexual assault, infidelity, bondage and survival overlayed with the status and contributions of a U.S. president to the foundation of America.”
Related to Jefferson through his mother’s father, LaNier provided historical context to the relationship between the president and Hemings.
“People want to romanticize their relationship,” he said. “She was a slave, a teenager. She did not have a choice.”
He debunked the notion that Hemings was merely “the other woman.” Jefferson’s wife, Martha, had passed away a few years before he was dispatched as an envoy to France. Jefferson took both Hemings and her brother James with him to Paris to work as domestic servants. Additionally, Martha and Sally were half-sisters, sharing the same father.
Documents indicate that Jefferson fathered at least six children with Hemings over the span of 37 years. Four of those children lived to adulthood, including Madison, the second youngest child, who is LaNier’s relative.
Jefferson kept a promise to Hemings that any of their children would be set free at the age of 21. While official ledgers show the children as “runaways,” LaNier said Jefferson provided those “runaways” with a stagecoach, money and ensured they learned a trade so they could earn a living wherever they chose to live.
After Jefferson’s death, Hemings left Monticello to live with one of her sons.
LaNier said he grew up knowing this messy family history and encouraged the audience to not be afraid to dig into their own ancestries.
“Let’s tell the truth,” he said. “Don’t quiet the voice of our ancestors. It’s important to tell these stories for healing and reconciliation. For so many years we ignored it. We can’t heal until we acknowledge it occurred.”
Part of healing and reconciliation for LaNier is accepting that some of his relatives decided years ago that they would take part in “passing,” a term used to describe when a person classified as a member of a racial group is perceived as a member of another. If a person could pass as white in society, they tended to do so in order to not experience racial discrimination.
Some of those families took their secret to the grave, so their descendants do not know they are a part of a rich heritage. Other families know the true story but may not be comfortable sharing that history.
LaNier relayed a powerful story regarding being given permission to spend time at Monticello, Jefferson’s home in Virginia. He has slept in several locations on the grounds, including mud-floored slave quarters, a back porch and the wine cellar. He once awakened in the middle of the night during a stay and noticed the bars on the windows.
“It was an emotional experience,” he recalled as he stared in silence, knowing many members of his family were unable to walk away from the bars and enjoy freedom.
“Slaves are the strongest people on this earth,” he said. “How dare I sit and complain? When I think I’m not strong enough, I look at my ancestors and know what they endured. I, too, shall keep fighting.”
See the list of other Black History Month events here: inclusive.eku.edu/events